Ian Darling at Good Pitch, Sydney Opera House
Cultural Crusader is the Philanthropist of the Year

Cultural crusader is the Philanthropist of the Year
David Tiley
reproduced from screenhub.com.au

Straddling the worlds of finance and social activism, Ian Darling has shaped theatre and art and changed the future of documentary.

Philanthropy Australia, the peak body for the sector, has given its 2017 Philanthropist of the Year Award to a prominent documentary filmmaker, arts patron and social activist, Ian Darling.

He is a man of many faces, and rarely seen as a complete whole, because he manages to be both a public figure and also personally reticent. 

Around the Sydney arts scene he is known as the former Chair of the Sydney Theatre Company and its foundation between 2006 and 2010, responsible for appointing Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton as co-artistic directors. He is also the Patron of the Kangaroo Valley Upper River Hall ArtsLab, a tiny but exquisite cultural centre in the Shoalhaven region.

His social philanthropy is run through The Caledonia Foundation, which he helps to fund and also chairs.  It tends to focus on practical projects for children at risk. He was Chair of the Oasis Youth Support Network, and a former member of the Advisory Board of the Salvation Army.

In documentary, he is Founder and Patron of the Documentary Australia Foundation, the Executive Director of Shark Island Productions, Chair of the non-profit Shark Island Institute, and Chair and until recently the Moderator of Good Pitch² Australia. 

He is also a filmmaker who has directed or produced fifteen substantial films, including Suzy & the Simple Man, Paul Kelly - Stories of Me, In the Company of Actors and Alone Across Australia. The Oasis led Ian Darling and Sascha Ettinger-Epstein to the 2008 documentary director AFI Award.


His understanding of philanthropy is as part of a complete ecosystem not a substitute for government funding. ‘The key is to help the sector grow,’ he said. ‘Success is a shared responsibility. You've got to be really careful that the traditional funders understand this. If they think that the philanthropy sector can carry the can, that is the greatest risk for the model.

‘If the agencies decide to take their foot off the accelerator and provide less funding then the donors will run a mile.’

This is really a much wider statement, which applies in any area where government, philanthropists and community groups co-operate. The private sector is not a substitute for government and should not provide an opportunity for Treasury to withdraw. If that happens, everyone tends to pack up and go home, not immediately but over time. 

Ian Darling is a pivotal figure because he is much more engaged in the world than most philanthropists, as he is directly involved with the organisations he supports, often on a three year cycle. His point of view is also sharpened by his eye as a documentary filmmaker.  He is a hinge between several different worlds who has worked with poverty and understands the cultural rules of more prosperous Australians.  


The Darling name is a potent icon of colonial times. There is a Governor of NSW, a long river and a busy harbour complex which carries the moniker. But, Ian Darling said, he is not connected to the family of Ralph Darling. Instead, his family comes from Victoria, and originated with a flour milling company in South Australia. The John Darling and Son milling complex in Albion, near Sunshine in Melbourne’s west, is an extraordinary building on the Victorian Heritage Register. The family is also connected to the early development of BHP. 

Born in 1962, Ian Darling did his first degree at the Australian National University in Canberra, followed by a Masters in Business Administration at the International Institute for Management Development in Switzerland. He moved to New York to work as a funds manager and set up Caledonia Investments in 1992 with a group of friends, with ‘a long short equity strategy with a focus on deep fundamental research and high conviction long-term investing’  to secure the savings of the extended family. He was the managing director until 2003. 25 years later it is still going strong. 

But Darling was bitten by the film and acting bug when he was a small child. His very first film was called Hooray, Hooray the Holidays Start Today. ‘Through school I was in every play I could. I had this deep interest in films and theatre. I was 23 and in New York and having an incredible time but deep down I had this yearning to do something creative.’

In 2000 he launched into his first feature length film, a documentary about financing called Woodstock for Capitalists. The synopsis says, ‘Three days of love, worship and money. A millionaire’s convention in Omaha, Nebraska.. 15,000 fanatical shareholders gather to pay homage to their hero Warren Buffett (the second richest man in the world), as one man searches for the reason why.'

By early in the new millennium, Ian Darling had accumulated a lot of experience in finance, was heavily involved in philanthropy, and had jumped head first into his most abiding passion. In 2001, the Howard government created the Prescribed Private Fund, the PPF, which provided tax relief for donations and enabled families to set up their own charitable funds or foundations, either individually or as a community. Philanthropy could now spread beyond the big end of town to comfortably off citizens with a particular passion, who could support smaller institutions through donations and inheritance. 


Much later, in 2013, Darling accepted the Stanley Hawes Award on behalf of the Documentary Australia Foundation. He reflected on a key moment on his own road to Damascus. 

'It was back in 2004 when I was living out of the back of a car with my family for a year. We were driving across the US at the time and taking a documentary I'd directed to a number of film festivals. I started to see some patterns emerging in the credits of the films I was watching - a significant number of the documentaries had received financial support by way of philanthropic grants from foundations, corporations and private individuals.. These disparate groups were not only raising awareness and funds, but also promoting the particular documentary, to keep it alive long after the broadcast (if indeed it were lucky enough to have a broadcast), and creating new audiences outside the traditional streams of cinema and television.'

Back in Australia, Ian Darling could now bring the three strands of his life together. He started The Caledonia Foundation with his friends, and opened Shark Island Productions with the Shark Island Institute as its non-profit arm. He could see that the the number of Prescribed Private Funds was growing rapidly, but they came with a wrinkle. Donations have to be made to DGR or deductible gift recipient organisations. 

In 2005, Ian Darling, along with filmmakers Mitzi Goldman and Susan Mackinnon, went public with a grand idea for documentary funding - the Documentary Australia Foundation, backed by the Shark Island Institute. As Goldman remembers, 'It was his idea. It was his vision, actually. He initially contacted me to do a research project about how to make a case for philanthropists to fund documentaries. I came on board to scope it. And along the way we decided to set up a foundation and get a board and build a website. It was then we brought on Susan and we job-shared.' 

They argued that documentary filmmakers and philanthropists had a natural affinity, because they had a common interest in creating change. Unnoticed by the screen community, the giving side of business had become a lot more sophisticated about engaging respectfully with organisations and evaluating the results of programs. They were realising that film is a powerful medium to spread ideas, create buzz and enable education programs. 

But many filmmakers were leery of donations. Unions, businesses and community groups sometimes behaved very badly when they financed projects, as the executive producers of the local community based filmmaking organisations like Open Channel and Metro Screen knew to their cost. What is more, the ABC, SBS and the screen agencies treated sponsorship as an idea invented by Satan.


The DAF people went on the road to convince sceptical filmmakers that the US idea of donations could work here, that the givers would behave well and funds could match budgets. They had a powerful weapon. DAF was a  deductible gift recipient organisation, recognised by the Australian tax office as a recipient of donations. With its own funds it agreed to provide the contract work, oversee productions and broker connections through a web page. 

It took a while to get going, partly because the Global Financial Crisis tightened belts around the world. For Goldman and Mackinnon, it was a leap into the dark just as the internet emerged as a new kind of social glue. Filmmakers and philanthropists had to learn to speak each other’s language.  According to Darling, filmmakers needed to understand ‘the value of money, return on investment and return on social capital. There is a lot of discipline in the investment game. Both sides have certain requirements and strategic rigour is necessary.’ Different kinds of hard-heads had to learn to co-operate. 

DAF quickly became far more than a conduit and soon took on some remarkably complex functions. Every funded documentary has a chain of milestones, IP requirements, and financial drawdowns. In this area, it has a parallel set of tasks about the social media presence, the impact production and ultimately the outreach delivery.  All of this is channelled through DAF, so donors know that the production is transparent and professionally controlled. 

In the same year, the BRITDOC Foundation used Channel Four money to set up an organisation in the UK initially to fund valuable documentaries refused by the broadcasters. It quickly learnt to accept funds from companies like Puma and engaged with the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Foundation. In 2008 it exploded onto the financing scene by reinventing the pitching process which had previously been the backbone of international financing at documentary conferences. GoodPitch allowed filmmakers to argue their case to invited audiences of outreach organisations, activists and philanthropists. 

Then it went international with Good Pitch² which started at the People to People (P2P) International Documentary Conference in Johannesburg in 2011. With such a natural fit between the two, it was inevitable that the Shark Island Institute and DAF would bring the idea to Australia. 


The first event, in October 2014 at the Sydney Opera House, was a revelation. Filmmakers could raise substantial budgets, donors could see the range and integrity of projects, and both sides could see just how carefully a good advocacy film is planned. From that moment on, outreach was a word in Australian documentary. 

Over three events, according to the website, ‘more than $14 million has been raised in philanthropic grants for the funding of 19 social impact documentaries and their impact campaigns, forging priceless pro bono support and 300+ powerful strategic partnerships between community groups, the corporate sector, NGOs and policy makers.’

Behind all this, the national broadcasters and funding agencies, who had traditionally dominated Australian documentaries, came under increasingly ferocious budget pressure. The old snootiness crumbled away as the internet and digital cinemas provided more informal pathways, and evidence of huge audience support. They withdrew their objections to sponsorship, though credibility must still be maintained. 

The 2016 Good Pitch² is the last formal event. I asked Darling if he thinks the philanthropic funding system has peaked. 

‘No, he replied. ‘It’s not past its use by date - it is in its early stages. We haven’t even touched the sides in terms of the whole pie.

‘There are a lot of emerging high net worth individuals looking to start small foundations, combined with philanthropic organisations who are increasingly understanding the need to communicate in a digital world.’

Effectively, DAF and then Good Pitch² worked with the savviest producers and the wisest funders to publicly demonstrate a system which is now understood by far more people. Darling argues that the system has matured to the point where a formal organisation is no longer needed. ‘It is now possible for the partners to go directly to each other without a training requirement. 

‘Now we can really create a sustainable funding base without needing a formal organisation. I think we need to be very strategic and take a long term approach - it has needed time and and a very stable and cautious approach. Where do we go from here?’


Trapped inside either the broadcasting system or the micro-budgets of the net, filmmakers need funds which enable them to mount ambitious projects and ensure they get wide circulation. If DAF and Shark Island are right, philanthropy can provide enough money to rewrite the rule book and allow the crusaders to shape the whole sector. 

That may or may not ultimately be a good thing - but it does look like the only force that can really make a difference on a domestic level at the moment. Meanwhile, the Shark Island Institute has guaranteed funding to GoodPitch in Australia for the next five years. 

‘The team will be instrumental in completing the nineteen film projects,’ said Darling. ‘We want to be able to ensure that all nineteen productions have campaigns and educational programs of really high standard.  

Though he has not been publicly involved with DAF for six years, Darling is still engaged through the Shark Island side.

‘We will also support at least 20 new filmmakers a year until we create at least 100 filmmakers who know how to work in the philanthropic and not for profit sector. And supporting a series of other forums.’

Mitzi Goldman remains the CEO of the Documentary Australia Foundation which has grown from one shared job to a staff of six. For the last two years, in a complete about turn, Screen Australia has provided funding through its Enterprise program. 

'Last year the turnover was $4.8m. This year it will be $6m. Since we have opened we have dealt with over $20m. DAF has a whole range of other programs supporting new films and workshops. It is the same model and we will run other events, something more sustainable and probably smaller.

'I would rather be here working in this space than endlessly knocking on the doors of the gatekeepers. It is a good place to be developing new funding models, new audiences, new ways to reach audiences - and seeing feature documentaries back in the theatres.'


Darling is also itching to go back into production on his own behalf. He is collaborating with Sascha Ettinger-Epstein on a new film which will go back to the participants in The Oasis ten years later, along with a feature length documentary about a different aspect of homelessness.  He continues to practice his side passion as a photographer, with a strong interest in portraits which appear as finalists in major competitions. 

Ultimately we are all living out the traces of our origins. Ian’s father David was a boarder at Geelong Grammar, taught history by a young Manning Clark. In 1943 he joined the RAAF and left without swank as a leading aircraftman, to study PPE at Brasenose in Oxford, deep in the English political class which would run the UK from both sides of politics. 

Back in Australia he joined the family flour milling company and put down roots. 

‘The Melbourne Darlings were into grain trading and flour milling,’ said his son. ‘My father was a flour miller, a grazier and an investor and an amateur photographer. He took great pleasure in just taking photographs which captured people’s smiling faces.’

‘Even when he went blind, he kept taking photographs. He liked to make people feel happy and got great joy out of that.’